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International Political Sociology (2013) 7, 275293

At the Crossroads of Autonomy and


Essentialism: Indigenous Peoples in
International Environmental Politics1
Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen
University of Lapland
Indigenous peoples are often perceived as custodians of nature owing
to their close relationship with their environment and their naturebased livelihoods. This paper investigates the kinds of environmental
agencies that are constructed for, and by, indigenous peoples within the
United Nations (UN) Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PF) and
the Arctic Council. The particular focus of this research is the issue of
responsibility. The article brings together empirical materials from the
two forums and engages with them using Foucault-inspired approaches.
We offer a critical discussion of indigenous peoples environmental
agency in international politics, addressing the need to problematize
representations of indigenous agency that to date have been largely
unchallenged in both the practice and study of international politics.
We identify three perspectives through which the environmental agency
of indigenous peoples is validated and justified: having particular knowledge, being stakeholders, and having a close relationship with nature.
Certain kinds of expectations are inscribed in each of these perspectives; responsibility becomes intertwined with agency.

Indigenous peoples are often perceived as custodians of nature because of their


close relationship with their environment and, especially, their nature-based livelihoods (for example, Smith 2007; Martello 2008; Shadian 2009). Owing to this
close relationship, they are vulnerable to environmental changes and, at the
same time, considered important actors in environmental politics.
In this article, we examine the environmental political agency of indigenous
peoples, seeking to answer the question: What kinds of environmental agencies
are constructed for indigenous peoples on the international level? The context
of the study is international environmental politics in two international political
forums that address issues of climate change and sustainable development: the
United Nations (UN) Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PF) and the
Arctic Council.
The reason for setting such a research question has been our joint observation
that certain (essentializing) representations and descriptions of indigenous
peoples and the environment recur regardless of the political context. We argue

1
Authors notes: We wish to thank Julian Reid, Monica Tennberg, and the anonymous referees for their helpful
comments and encouragement. We are thankful for the comments received when presenting a previous draft of
this article at the WISC International Studies Conference in Porto, Portugal, 2011. M.L. would like to acknowledge
funding support provided by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation and the Finnish Cultural Foundation. H.S-N. would
like to acknowledge funding support provided by the Gender Studies Doctoral Program.

Lindroth, Marjo and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen. (2013) At the Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism:
Indigenous Peoples in International Environmental Politics. International Political Sociology, doi: 10.1111/ips.12023
2013 International Studies Association

276

Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism

that these representations are established conceptions of indigenousness that


indigenous politics needs to embrace in order to be heard and recognized. At
the same time, our research addresses the need in international politics and
international studies to problematize these largely unchallenged representations
and to work with more nuanced perceptions of indigenous agency. Studies in
this vein are still rather few in number.
The article brings together separate analyses of two research contexts and sets
of materials. By identifying common themes and dissecting them using Foucaultinspired approaches, we offer a critical discussion of indigenous peoples environmental agency in international politics.
The Arctic Council, established in 1996, is a regional intergovernmental
forum that brings together Arctic states and representatives of indigenous peoples to address concerns and challenges affecting the Arctic region.2 The UN
PF, established in 2000, is an advisory body under the Economic and Social
Council (ECOSOC) with a broad mandate to deal with indigenous issues ranging from human rights and economic development to the environment and
culture.3 Both forums have been described as exemplary, even exceptional, in
providing political space for indigenous peoples representatives (Heinamaki
2009, 2010; Shadian 2009).
The focus of this article is not, however, to examine the institutional character
and structure of these forums, but to take a critical look at how environmental
agencies are defined and constructed within the two political spaces. We interpret the political discourses in those spaces as practices of power (Dillon 1995)
that play a part in shaping and defining both environmental problems and the
actors capable of, and responsible for, solving them. In order to do this, we
engage in discussions of international environmental politics that analyze politics
through governance and ask how the environment, climate, or sustainable development is governed.4 In our understanding, environmental problems come into
existence and become constructed as objects of regulation and knowledge
through a variety of techniques and practices (Backstrand 2004:703, according
to Rutherford 2007:294). Environmental agencies become constructed in a similar way.
The particular focus and contribution of this article lie in questions of responsibility, for scholars have noted that the questions of power (Barnett and Duvall
2005; K
utting and Lipschutz 2009) and responsibility (Pellizzoni 2004; Tennberg
2012) have not been addressed in the area of environmental governance. As
Irwin (1995) has noted, political discussions (public space) also create demands,
hopes, and expectations for individuals and communities (private space). Hence,
in addition toand entailed inthe question of agency, we study how responsibilities are included in the understandings of indigenous peoples as environmental agents.
The data for the research consist of materials from the PF and the Arctic
Council. The PF material comprises statements made by indigenous peoples,
states, and UN agencies at a special theme session titled Climate Change,
Bio-Cultural Diversity and Livelihoods: The Stewardship Role of Indigenous

2
Arctic organizations of indigenous peoples are integrated into the work of the Arctic Council as Permanent
Participants. The Council has six indigenous organizations which have this status.
3
The PF consists of 16 expert members, of whom half are state representatives and half indigenous representatives. The annual sessions of the PF attract extensive participation, as observers, by the worlds indigenous peoples
and their organizations.
4
The approach of governmentality has been understood, employed, and criticized from various perspectives in
IR and its different schools of thought (for example, Selby 2007; Collier 2009; Death 2010; Joseph 2010; Neumann
and Sending 2010; Shani, Chandler, Debrix, Richmond, Joseph, Calkivik and Pasha 2010).

Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

277

Peoples and New Challenges, held during the Forums 2008 annual session.5
The Arctic Council material comprises reports published under the auspices of
the Council and its working groups. The reports that have been analyzed are the
Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2005)6 and the Arctic Human Development
Report (2004). The former is the first comprehensive evaluation of Arctic
climate change; the latter addresses issues of sustainable development and represents one of the first attempts to document the welfare of Arctic residents and
take up social and cultural dimensions of life in the Arctic.7
Despite the differences between these bodies of materials (one containing
statements, the other reports), we interpret the texts as political statements
through which indigenous peoplesalong with actors such as states, the UN, and
the scientific communityare able to define their role and agency in relation to
the environment. Indigenous peoples have been actively engaged in formulating
the reports and statements analyzed in the research. In the Arctic Council, the
indigenous representatives are the six permanent participant groups, whereas in
the PF, the indigenous representatives are the participants who define themselves
as indigenous (Lindroth 2006; Wilson and verland 2007).
The Foucauldian approach provides some methodological principles
(Br
ockling, Krasmann and Lemke 2011:1215), but does not offer a detailed
method for analysis. It is more a matter of discerning the rules which govern
bodies of texts and utterances (Fairclough 2003:123). In identifying existing
vocabularies, the methods used in both of our separate broader studies have
been based on content analysis. In this article, we draw together the key findings
of our respective studies on indigenous peoples agency and environmental politics and group them under three themes: indigenous knowledge, stakeholdership, and close relationship with nature. We conclude by suggesting that a
biopolitical approach could be used to capture the particularity of the governmentality that manifests itself in indigenous environmental political agency.
This article can be situated among a range of studies on indigenous peoples
political agency on the international level (for example, Brysk 2000; Niezen
2003; Soguk 2007), particularly in the area of environmental politics (for example, Ulloa 2005; Smith 2007; Martello 2008). The research contributes to existing
studies through its international political contexts (cf. national case studies
Bryant 2002; Ulloa 2005).
Governance, Environment, and Changing Responsibilities
The analyzed debates in the PF session deal with the impacts of climate change
on indigenous peoples, their cultures, livelihoods, and agency. The Arctic Council has beenand continues to bea very much environmentally oriented institution, and the reports analyzed are seen as key studies in providing information
on the environmental, social, and cultural sustainability of the Arctic (see also
Martello 2008).
In building our critical discussion, we draw on the governmentality approach.
This means analyzing how things are disposed and arrangedenvironmental problems includedto lead to a certain convenient outcome or end (Foucault 1983,
1991:9495). The concept of governmentality has been applied to the study of
5
This article is part of Marjo Lindroths extensive study on the political agency of indigenous peoples in the PF
(Lindroth 2006, 2011). Her research data comprise statements from the 2002 to 2010 PF sessions and observations
from the 2004 to 2007 sessions.
6
For the purposes of this study, only the chapter titled The Changing Arctic: Indigenous Perspectives has been
analyzed.
7
This is part of a larger study by Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen analyzing Arctic politics, indigenous peoples agency,
and the definitions of the social dimension of sustainable development. Her research data consist of research interviews, memoranda, and reports of the Arctic Council from 2006 to 2010.

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Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism

environmental issues by, among others, Darier (1999a,b), Luke (1999), Rutherford
(1999a,b, 2000), Bryant (2002),8 Agrawal (2005), Oels (2005), and Death (2010).
The environment has become a subject of political rationalities. The debates
in the PF session and the reports of the Arctic Council are endeavours of
mapping, measuring, organizing, quantifying and above all representing particular aspects of nature (Rutherford 2007:297), thus constructing the environment as risks and problems to be managed and governed (cf. Rutherford 2000;
Colebatch 2002). These endeavors characterize the usefulness and crisis of the
environment (Rutherford 2007:297) while at the same time defining the actors
capable of influencing environmental problems and participating in the management of the crisis.
Governing environmental problems is not only a question of imposing governmental definitions or authority. In constructing environmental agencies, individuals and communities, such as indigenous peoples, are also able to formulate
their own definitions and define their spaces of action. This is what Foucault
calls technologies of the self. It is at the interface between these individual/
communal acts and governmental practices that governmentality takes place
(Foucault 1988, 1993; Oksala 2002:224).
There is a duality in the subjectification of individuals: they are subjected to
the power relations within which they are embedded, and at the same time, they
are able to act as subjects in and through those same relations. Thus, governing
does not imply a negative force only but, most importantly, is a precondition for
agency and thus a productive force; it produces human beings as agents (for
example, Sawicki 1991; Dillon 1995; Allen 2002).
Dean (1999:167168) describes this construction of actors as technologies of
agency that come into play when certain individuals, groups and communities
become targeted populations, that is, populations that manifest high risk
Within the environmental and human rights debates, indigenous peoples are
frequently defined as groups at risk and in need of special procedures to
enhance their participation. The PF and the Arctic Council are vivid examples
of integrating indigenous peoples into political discussions and definition-making. In both forums, indigenous peoples are often seen, by states and indigenous
representatives themselves, as possessing important environmental knowledge
owing to their allegedly special relationship with nature and the environment in
which they live.
Viewed critically, this participant position, while empowering a degree of
autonomy, also entangles and integrates indigenous peoples into networks of
power that hold them accountable to themselves and others (Dillon 1995:325).
Making individuals and communities active citizens involves making them capable of, and responsible for, managing their own risks (Cruikshank 1999; Dean
1999:168; Higgins 2001:303). Responsibilities are also inherently linked to the
changing environment: environmental changes require us to act if we are to
cope with them. Responsibility stems from various expectations that the peoples
should act on behalf of the environment. Indeed, Rutherford has noted how
the responsibility for the environment is shifted onto the populations, and citizens are called to take up the mantle of saving the environment in attractively
simplistic ways. This allows for the management, self-surveillance and regulation
of behaviour in such a way that lays claim to the subjectivity that those who are
environmentally conscious wish to have
(Rutherford 2007:299)

In light of their often-cited connections to the environmentfor example,


their nature-based livelihoodsindigenous peoples are seen as capable and
8
Bryant (2002) has studied the role of NGOs in governmentality in an analysis of indigenous peoples and the
protection of biodiversity in the Philippines.

Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

279

legitimate actors. At the same time, they are also ascribed responsibilities
through various means because of this special relationship with nature and the
ability to observe changes in it. According to Pellizzoni (2004:549), care and liability describe the dimensions of responsibility which indigenous peoples exercise in environmental protection, observation, and action. Care as attribution of
responsibility is grounded on strong normative and factual beliefs. These
beliefs are often at work when the relationship of indigenous peoples with the
environment is debated: it is often said that indigenous peoples have a thorough
knowledge of their living environment, its changes and needs, and hence should
take care of it. Liability refers to responsibility for events that have already taken
place. Since indigenous peoples allegedly have a special knowledge of their environment, it is expected that they will detect environmental changes and adapt
and act accordingly.
The notion that indigenous peoples have a special relationship with, and
knowledge of, the environment merits critical scrutiny in its own right. However,
the purpose of this article is not to study whether indigenous peoples actually
have special environmental knowledge or what the nature of that knowledge
might be, but to discuss the ways in which the vocabularies on indigenous
peoples and the environment construct the peoples agency; this agency includes
power and emancipation, as well as responsibility. In the context of our study,
we understand responsibilities not only as commitments expressly assumed by
the indigenous peoples, but also as implicit expectations and roles constructed
for them. Indigenous peoples themselves actively appropriate these roles and
expectations in their political participation (Lindroth 2011).
Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations Permanent Forum and the Arctic
Council
The international human rights framework recognizes indigenous peoples as
political actors. For example, ILO Convention No. 169 notes the importance of
indigenous peoples participation in decision making, land rights issues, and the
control of development. Indigenous peoples themselves have also advocated for
the inclusion of their participation in environmental management and sustainable development and the utilization of their knowledge in these areas
(Heinamaki 2010:61,67). In fact, they have established their own organizations
as part of their seeking full and active participation in political, economic, social,
and environmental developments (Tennberg 1998). These national and international political processes have given indigenous peoples an established status as
actors and experts in environmental debates.
Parajuli (1998, 2004:150) goes so far as to describe indigenous peoples relationship with environmental questions as nothing less than an identity. This
ecological ethnicity takes shape in the livelihoods that the peoples practice,
which depend on their relationship with the environment. In turn, this dependence makes them vulnerable to processes of the extractive industries and transboundary pollution, for example. This ecological ethnicity has also functioned as
a strong legitimization for the peoples enhanced participation in environmental
debates.
In previous studies, indigenous peoples, the changing environment, and questions of participation have been dealt with in light of knowledgesboth
scientific and indigenousand policy (Nilsson 2007; Mustonen 2009; Shadian
2009). Martello (2008) has pointed out how indigenous peoples have become
representations and representatives of climate change and notes the ways in
which scientific and indigenous perspectives on climate change are mutually
constitutive. These discussions are linked with the perspectives of this study

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Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism

through the understanding of the coconstitutive nature of environmental problems, actors, and responsibilities.
The political, economic, and environmental struggles of indigenous peoples
are intertwined; the peoples have brought their claims in various political arenas
against those who have caused the environmental problems that the peoples suffer from (Pulido 1996). This is very much the case in the PF and the Arctic
Council, but while indigenous peoples have been given an audience, both
forums have been criticized for being state centric and bureaucratic and for
producing recommendations that they cannot implement or monitor in practice
(Lindroth 2006, 2011; Heininen and Numminen 2011).
Despite these shortcomings, the PF and Arctic Council have been seen as providing new opportunities for participation and agency for indigenous peoples.
The two forums share three distinctive features: they are international; they
address environmental issues and concerns (among others); and they are spaces
within which indigenous peoples may exert influence and take part in shaping
decisions.
The Arctic Council provides both a physical place of participation and an
argumentative space for exerting influence. Two features of the Council are of
special interest. First, the way in which it was formed was exemplary, even exceptional, in widening traditional state-led understandings of political participation
(for example, Nilsson 2007; Shadian 2009; Heinamaki 2010). Second, the Council has made environmental protection and scientific aspirations distinctive elements of Arctic politics (for example, Shadian and Tennberg 2009). It has
carved out a cognitive niche in generating knowledge on the Arctic that is not
provided elsewhere and in taking action in the region (Stokke 2007:18) and has
extended the concern over the Arctic to include the social, cultural, and economic challenges that northern communities face (for example, Hnneland and
Stokke 2007; Nilsson 2009). On balance, the Arctic Council can be defined as an
Arctic voice and a decision-shaping body in global environmental politics (Mller
2009).
The PF represents a second physical and argumentative space for indigenous
politics. Where the Arctic Council deals with issues related to the Arctic areas
and attracts the participation of Arctic indigenous peoples, the PF is a global
arena, drawing indigenous representatives from all over the world. The PF has
recognized the special role of indigenous peoples in global environmental
debates, and it can be said that the participation of indigenous peoples in the
Forum has increased their recognition as international actors (Heinamaki
2010:51). In addition to the formal procedures of participation, the PF has
offered indigenous peoples a place to develop cooperation and strategies among
themselves.
When indigenous peoples participate in the PF, they struggle for political
space with states in an arena that is state based and non-indigenous (Lindroth
2006, 2011). The PF is an expert body and does not have decision-making
power; its mandate is to come up with recommendations to the Economic and
Social Council on indigenous issues. Environmental politics is one of the mandated areas of the PF and is thus an issue that is discussed in the Forum on a
standing basis. In addition, in 2008, a special thematic debate was devoted to
climate change and the particular role of indigenous peoples in efforts to
combat climate change.
The participation of indigenous peoples in these forums and in international
politics is important, and we do not argue that their participation and engagement are undesirable. However, the perspective of governmentality urges one to
make visible the power relations entailed in the construction of the agencies and
the responsibilities that are produced within those relations. An examination of
the literature reveals a lack of critical analysis of indigenous peoples political

Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

281

participation in these two forums (notable exceptions include Corntassel 2007,


2008; Kuokkanen 2007; Soguk 2007; Odysseos 2010; Lindroth 2011).
As Pellizzoni (2003:335) notes, society and environmental problems have
become so complex that no single subject is able to manage them in a traditional top-down style. This has meant downscaling and diffusing policy and decision making and including stakeholders in development and implementation.
The development of voluntary regulation manifests a change from governing to
governance (Pellizzoni 2004). Thus, relations of expertise between the state and
society at large are changing, a development that is arguably reflected in the
case of the indigenous peoples participation in the PF and the Arctic Council.
Individuals and groups are entering into a partnership or are working
together with public authorities (see also Heinamaki 2009), yet at the same time
assuming responsibility for controlling (environmental) risks (OMalley 1996:201,
203). As it stands, the participation of indigenous peoples in the PF and the Arctic
Council represents a construction of responsibilities for them.
The following sections identify three common themes through which the construction of agency and responsibility for indigenous peoples take place: indigenous knowledge, stakeholdership, and a close relationship with nature. We use
excerpts from the research materials as examples to elucidate these themes and
critically discuss these findings with reference to the literature. The empirical
materials we have analyzed reflect the political contexts of the studies in that the
materials differ in style and structure. The materials of the Arctic Council are scientific reports summarizing extensive studies and are written in a factual style.
The PF materials are concise statements delivered by indigenous groups, state
and UN agency representatives, or various coalitions of these actors and tend to
favor the active voice.
Constructing Agencies: Arguments for Participation and Responsibility
Indigenous Peoples as Holders of Knowledge

One way to argue for, and construct, indigenous peoples agency in environmental debates is through knowledge and knowing. In addition to living in areas
affected by environmental changes, indigenous peoples are perceived as living
their environment in their daily lives. This indigenous, or traditional, ecological
knowledge can and should be used to address environmental concerns (ACIA
2005:6465, 95).
Our research materials bring to light agencies of indigenous peoples as environmental knowledge holders. The ACIA Scientific Report notes how indigenous
peoples live in the region all year round, have intimate knowledge of the land,
sea, and climate. They are an invaluable resource and important partners in
research and demonstrate extensive knowledge about climate change in their
daily lives (ACIA 2005:77, 81). In a similar way, the report of the 2008 PF session acknowledges the contribution that indigenous peoples can make in the
struggle against climate change because of their traditional knowledge.9
These texts emphasize the role of indigenous peoples as environmental knowledge holders and thus as valid participants in discussions of environmental
politics. The PF material makes it clear that indigenous peoples traditional
knowledge and skills will help people adapt to climate change10 and that
9
Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Report on the Eighth Session, April 21May 2, 2008. Economic and
Social Council Official Records supplement No. 23, UN, New York, E/2008/43/E/C.19/2008/13. Available at http://
daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N08/338/82/PDF/N0833882.pdf?OpenElement. (Accessed August 2,
2011.)
10
Fred Caron, Assistant Deputy Minister, Observer Delegation of Canada.

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Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism

indigenous peoples special knowledge which has to be validated.11 The ACIA


report also notes how local voices in the remote regions are often not heard
even though they should be (ACIA 2005:87).
Viewed critically, the role of knowledges and knowledge holders is intertwined
with power relations. Indeed, as politically recognized knowledge holders, indigenous peoples also become subjected to and subjects in governmental conduct.
For Foucault, power in the modern age operates distinctively through knowledge (Dillon 1995:324); this means that knowledges, both Western science and
indigenous knowledge, are essential parts of conducting conduct. Power works
through knowledge by employing technologies of observation and evaluation,
for example, as well as an institutionalized array of persons to govern societies
(Dillon 1995:324325). As a result, indigenous peoples also take part in this
governance, as both its objects and subjects, with their knowledge and observations of the environment.
According indigenous peoples a role as actors with environmental knowledge
can also be interpreted as one way to define responsibilities for them. By taking
and actively seeking this role, they consent to the underlying responsibilities.
Agrawal (2005:198) has noted that knowledge functions to form environmental
subjects that are expected to define themselves and transform their own conditions. Hence, the responsibility for, and risks associated with, the environment
devolve to those with local knowledge (for example, Rutherford 2007), indigenous peoples being one such group.
In the case of indigenous knowledge, there is a problematic relationship
between different kinds of knowledges. Despite the aims and hopes of integrating and validating indigenous knowledge in the debates on environmental
policy, there is a gap between the formalized knowledges of science and local
understandings generated in the course of everyday life. Irwin (1995:131)
describes this gap in the following terms:
We can discern the existence of lay knowledges which might enrich decision-making processes and the general knowledge of hazard and health issuesbut which
are currently excluded due to their supposed irrationality and anecdotal nature.

This issue has also been acknowledged in the ACIA (2005:6467). There is
controversy over the concept of indigenous knowledge, its use, and how it relates
to other knowledges. Despite this controversy, our research materials represent
indigenous knowledge, both explicitly and implicitly, as universally existing.
One example of the complexity, political nature, and power of knowledge is
what is termed its empowering quality. The statements of the PF point out, for
example, that there is a need to empower indigenous peoples to manage their
lands. . .in a sustainable way.12 and strengthen the abilities of indigenous peoples to negotiate the situation of their peoples.13 The ACIA report also
includes understandings, for example, to the effect that indigenous peoples
need to apply for funding and to establish an environmental program with a
focus on community planning and increasing understanding about the longterm impacts of climate change (ACIA 2005:77). Viewed critically, the skills and
knowledge related to environmental issues are provided and used to guide the
right kind of action (OMalley 1996:201). Accordingly, although indigenous
peoples have traditional knowledge, they are still required to educate and
improve themselves.

11

Regina Laub, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).


Gunilla Olsson, Executive Director, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
13
Trisha Reidy, United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).
12

Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

283

In sum, indigenous knowledge serves to construct a political space and agency


by and for indigenous peoples within the environmental debates of the PF and
Arctic Council. Knowledge is a tool of governance and creating responsibilities:
at the same time as it enables indigenous agency, it constrains. In addition, the
relationship between different forms of knowledge is complicated. While indigenous knowledge is embraced rhetorically, it can nevertheless be excluded in
practice.
Stakeholders and the Local Need to Adapt

In addition to having local environmental knowledge, indigenous peoples are


represented as bearing the brunt of environmental change. The role of indigenous peoples as stakeholders living in areas, and having livelihoods, affected by a
changing environment argues for their being accorded political status as actors.
The statements of the PF note how, for indigenous peoples, climate change is
a matter of life and death.14 The participants have also noted that the effects
of climate change may threaten the very existence of indigenous peoples15 and
are putting our [the indigenous peoples] survival as peoples at risk.16 Due to
climate change, indigenous peoples live in ecosystems at serious risk from
degradation.17 In a similar vein, the ACIA report notes the role of indigenous
peoples not only as knowledge holders but also, and most importantly, as
stakeholders concretely affected by the environmental changes in their daily
lives:
Within the context of climate change, indigenous observations and perspectives
offer great insights not only in terms of the nature and extent of environmental
change, but also in terms of the significance of such change for those
peoples whose cultures are built on an intimate connection with the arctic
landscape.
(ACIA 2005:62)

This stakeholder role legitimizes and strengthens indigenous peoples status as


valid participants in environmental debates. The role gives the peoples an entitlement and a right to speak. Belonging to the community affected by the problem legitimizes their arguments (Pellizzoni 2003:329). Pellizzoni also notes how
particular importance is given to the formal recognition of the ability to speak
when agencies are constructed. For indigenous peoples, this formal recognition
and status have been granted through their participation in the PF and the
Arctic Council. Hence, indigenous peoples have the legitimacy, skills, and ability
to participate in global environmental debates.
In the statements delivered in the PF, the participants argue that indigenous
peoples have preserved the nature in perfect balance and yet as a result of
the developed worlds increased emissions of greenhouse gases, the indigenous
peoples find themselves affected by the impacts of climate change.18 In addition, the participants note that indigenous peoples are disproportionally
affected by climate change19 since they are those least responsible for causing
climate change but those most affected20 by its consequences. In terms of

14

Fiu Mataese Elisara, Pacific Caucus.


Salvano Brice~
no, Director, International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR).
16
Edith Bastidas, presenting the Declaration of the Preparatory Meeting for the 7th session of the UN PF (held
April 34, 2008 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia).
17
Gunilla Olsson, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
18
Maria Isabel Ventura, Indigenous Parliament of Bolivia.
19
Dkankou Djonkou, Representative to the UN and Director, International Labour Organization (ILO).
20
Gunilla Olsson, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
15

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Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism

responsibilities, the role of stakeholders is intertwined with risks and threats that
compel indigenous peoples to act.
A term often used in connection with risks and impacts and the demand for
an indigenous response is adaptation. The ACIA notes the continuous need of
indigenous peoples to adapt:
The challenge posed by climate change to indigenous peoples is their ability to
respond and adapt to changes in the local environment, while continuing to
prosper. Since the history of indigenous peoples is replete with change, it is
important to ask whether they and their cultures are threatened by continued
change, or whether change is just a threat to current understanding of the
environment, which in any case is continually changing, slowly and on daily
basis.
(ACIA 2005:76)

The discussions in the PF also link local and traditional knowledge and
adaptation to indigenousness, as the following argument by the indigenous
chairperson of the 2008 PF session illustrates:
As stewards of the worlds biodiversity and cultural diversity and with our traditional livelihoods and ecological knowledge, we can significantly contribute to
designing and implementing more appropriate and sustainable mitigation and
adaptation measures.21

In our critical view, the vocabulary of adaptation is not neutral: it empowers


indigenous peoples to act in environmental politics but simultaneously imposes
on them expectations that they will adapt and take responsibility in adapting
(see also Sinevaara-Niskanen and Tennberg 2012:133135 on adaptation and
scattered responsibility). By probing the question of adaptation, we do not question adaptation per se, but claim that the repeated and permeating vocabulary
of adaptation is a practice of governance. Moreover, we do not argue that indigenous peoples lack possibilities to influence the forms and processes of adaptation itself.
In the material analyzed, indigenous peoples themselves indicate that they
have always been able to adapt to change (ACIA 2005:81). The Arctic Human
Development Report also poignantly notes the need for constant adaptation and
change in indigenous communities:
Nor is climate change the only threat to Arctic societies and cultures. On the
contrary, there is also a growing need to respond effectively to fast changes in
economic, legal, and political systems as well as to changes in other biophysical
systems. To meet this challenge, Arctic societies will have to balance the retention
of longstanding social practices with the introduction of new forms of knowledge
and innovative technologies or, in other words, find the right mix of continuity
and change.
(AHDR 2004:230231)

This inscribed commitment to, and hope for, adaptation can also be understood in terms of resilience22 (for example, Adger 2000; Folke 2006; Gallopin
2006). Both adaptation and resilience can be critically viewed as means of
managing risks and relying on active citizens to bear responsibilities (Higgins
2001; Reid 2012). For indigenous peoples, this means having to adapt and
accommodate to their changing environmental conditions, conditions that they
21

Victoria Tauli-Corpus, Chairperson of the PF.


Adaptation refers to adjustment in social-ecological systems in response to environmental changes and their
impacts (Folke 2006). Resilience is widely used in ecology to refer to persistence or robustness in the face of disturbance (Adger 2000), and it has been increasingly used in the analysis of humanenvironment interaction as well
(Folke 2006; Janssen and Ostrom 2006). Social resilience, as well as adaptive capacity, can be defined as the ability
of groups or communities to cope with external stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political and environmental change (Adger 2000:347).
22

Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

285

have not brought about themselves but which are nevertheless very much present in indigenous communities. Thus, the need and will to adapt and to be resilient construct indigenous peoples as actors responsible for coping and persisting
in the face of environmental challenges (see also Tennberg 2009). Despite indigenous peoples political participation and abilities to exert influence, the adaptation rhetoric implies that in the near future, it is not environmental politics, but
rather indigenous cultures and livelihoods that must change drastically.
Indigenous peoples status as stakeholders legitimizes and requires agency not
only now but also in the future. As noted in the Arctic Council reports and PF statements, the survival and existence of indigenous peoples are at stake in the face
of the degradation of the environments in which they live. Inasmuch as they are
deemed stakeholders, indigenous peoples become responsible as environmental
actors, a role entailing far more than mere legitimization as actors.
The fact that indigenous peoples live in areas impacted by environmental
changes is one argument for their environmental political agency. This stakeholder role relies on the peoples knowledge of the local conditions and ongoing changes. However, it also requires that the peoples bear the risks and adapt.
In sum, they themselves take on responsibilities and are made responsible in
terms of local resilience and adaptation, as well as political participation.
Indigenousness and a Close Relationship with Nature

One argument that further underpins the status of indigenous peoples as valid
actors in environmental debates is their allegedly special relationship with nature/the environment. This is inherently linked with indigenous knowledge and
the areas which peoples inhabit yet embraces specific historical, cultural, and
spiritual factors as well.
Within the PF, participants note that indigenous peoples have preserved the
nature in perfect balance,23 their lifestyles are the most environmentally sustainable,24 and their harmonious relations with nature places them in a
leading position in terms of guiding the rest of the world.25 Indigenous peoples
are referred to in the statements as custodians of natural resources and are said
to have a solemn stewardship duty.26 The ACIA (2005:62) also describes Arctic
indigenous peoples as sharing a close connection to their surroundings, an intimate understanding of their environment. The special relationship with nature
that indigenous peoples havea perception repeatedly conveyed in the material
produces a distinction between them and other environmental actors. This
perception is anchored in representations of indigenous peoples as living in and
from nature.
In this vocabulary on indigenous peoples and their close relationship with
nature, the peoples are seen as savage ecologists who live in harmony with nature
and to whom people in the industrialized world have turned for solutions to environmental problems. This interest has legitimized indigenous views on the environment and improved indigenous peoples opportunities to put forward their
concerns in international political arenas (Heinamaki 2009:12). The view can also
be found in the literature, as the following quotation from Heinamaki illustrates:
indigenous peoples have an important role to play since they have the potential
to act as leading examples in international forums by bringing their holistic
approach, which combines ecological and social concerns in a balanced
way.
(Heinamaki 2010:80)
23

Maria Isabel Ventura, Indigenous Parliament of Bolivia.


Dkankou Djonkou, Representative to the UN and Director, International Labour Organization (ILO).
25
Salvano Brice~
no, Director, United Nations/International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR).
26
Hilario G. Davide, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the UN.
24

286

Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism

We argue that while this perception enables indigenous environmental agency,


it also functions to essentialize indigenousness. Through their allegedly special
relationship with their environments, indigenous peoples become defined as
one thing: the lone voice of truth, the virtuous defenders of an environment that
is being destroyed by the rapaciousness greed for resources (Rutherford
2007:301). In the context of environmental issues and despite the heterogeneity
among indigenous peoples, indigenousness becomes fixedeven by the indigenous peoples themselvesas one thing that is shared by all indigenous peoples.
The idea prevails that the indigenous view offers an alternative to the industrialized worlds approach to environmental issues (Heinamaki 2009:14; see also
Smith 2007). This also implies responsibilities for indigenous peoples. In Pellizzonis (2004) words, the close relationship and knowledge of the environment
that indigenous peoples have are tantamount to a need to take care of the environment; that is, their intimate relationship with the environment entails responsibility in the form of care and liability. However, it has also been acknowledged
that the environmental values which indigenous peoples allegedly possess should
not automatically be seen as translating into environmentally friendly behavior
(Heinamaki 2009:13; see also Ellen 1986).
Nonetheless, the vocabulary portraying indigenous peoples as living in harmony with natural world and representing an alternative (Niezen 2003:179)
entails not only the responsibility for the environment, or environmental agency,
but also the responsibility for indigenous subjectivity. Indigenous advocacy is tied
to, and resonates with, the perceptions and expectations of wider audiences on
what indigenousness is. Indeed, indigenous peoples themselves recognize and
utilize these perceptions in their political agency and in enhancing their claims
(Lindroth 2011). What results is both a constraining and an enabling situation
for the peoples (Niezen 2003:191; see also Sissons 2005 on oppressive authenticity).
The vocabulary describing indigenous peoples as living close to nature is
inherently linked to the perception of the peoples survival being threatened by
environmental degradation (see also Stakeholders and the local need to adapt
above). Much as closeness to nature essentializes indigenousness by placing
expectations on it, the concomitant language describing the threats and risks
facing the collective existence of indigenous peoples binds indigenousness to
community. As environmental actors, indigenous peoples become defined not as
individuals but as collectives, as peoples, and communities. This is one way of
making a distinction between indigenous peoples and other environmental
actors. The emphasis on community commitment is visible in the Arctic Human
Development Report, the conclusion of which notes:
More generally, our study has directed attention to a distinction between two fundamentally different perspectives on human development. One approachwe
may call it the western approachstarts with the individual and asks how individuals are faring in terms of any number of criteria like life expectancy, education,
material well-being, and so forth. An alternative approachreflected in many
indigenous culturesstarts with the community or the social group and
views human development through the lens of community viability. Successful
individuals are those who make major contributions to the well-being of their
communities.
(AHDR 2004:241)

In our interpretation, indigenous peoples are made responsible through their


imputed qualities, that is, a close relationship with nature and close ties within
communities. Indigenous individuals become ethical citizens of their community and are expected to collectively act for the benefit of that community
(Summerville, Adkins and Kendall 2008:67). According to Rose (1999:142), governing through community fosters and enables the existing bonds and strengths

Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

287

in a community and uses these to engender desired environmental actions. This


means that indigenous peoples are made responsible and committed to their
families and communities (Rose 1996:328) for their survival.
As a result, the vocabulary of the close relationship of indigenous peoples with
nature/the environment constructs their environmental agency. This harmony,
balance, and environment friendly lifestyle argue for the peoples right to
participate but at the same time create expectations and demands that they are
to care of, and take responsibility for, the environment. These features are
intimately tied with the perceptions and often essentialized ideas of what indigenousness isfor example, a people living in and from nature. At the same time,
threats and risks to nature endanger the collective existence of indigenous
peoples. On balance, the communal aspect of indigenousness becomes one way
of constructing indigenous environmental agency and responsibilities.
Conclusions
The PF and the Arctic Council are illustrative examples of how indigenous peoples have been integrated into environmental debates on the international level.
The peoples themselves have been active in arguing for the inclusion of their
knowledge and contributions in these debates. However, there is a lack of critical
analyses of indigenous peoples political participation in these two forums.
Analyzed through the statements of a UN PF session and reports produced by
the Arctic Council, the environmental agency of indigenous peoples has been
validated and argued for in terms of three overlapping and interconnected perspectives: the peoples knowledge, role as stakeholders, and relationship with
nature. Indigenous peoples have local and traditional knowledge of their environments. In addition, they are stakeholders who live in areas affected by climate
change and thus have a need to adapt to the changes in their daily life. As a
core element of indigenousness, the peoples supposedly close relationship with
nature is also a legitimization of their environmental agency. These three features are positive elements linked to indigenousness and, as such, open doors
for the participation of indigenous peoples in environmental politics. The peoples themselves also take part in constructing their agency through these features.
The formal recognition and inclusion of indigenous peoples in the PF and
the Arctic Council are bound by governmental structures, and despite the
embracing political rhetoric, this participation does not necessarily translate into
an ability to influence environmental politics or states actions. In our argument,
the three themes we have identified are examples of the ways in which indigenous peoples agency corresponds to the rationality of environmental governance. As Neumann and Sending (2010) note, if we only look at how nonstate
actors are able to produce knowledge and challenge states, we are missing the
point. The role and expertise of nonstate actors, such as indigenous peoples
organizations, need to be studied in terms of how they fit into and correspond
to rationalities of government (Neumann and Sending 2010:129). The PF and
the Arctic Council, where indigenous peoples are present and act, produce,
shape, and require certain kinds of indigenous agency.
In the constructions of indigenous peoples environmental agency, this fitting
in and corresponding to entail different kinds of responsibilities. The roles of
indigenous peoples argued foras knowledge holders, stakeholders, and people
with a close relationship with naturelegitimize their place and agency but also
impose requirements and demands.
We argue that there are responsibilities inscribed in each of the three perspectives of agency examined. The responsibilities are not explicit assertions but
implicit expectations and roles constructed for indigenous peoples. Indigenous

288

Crossroads of Autonomy and Essentialism

peoples themselves also actively appropriate these expectations in their political


participation. The peoples role as environmental knowledge holders legitimizes
indigenous knowledge, but also requires them to constantly increase their
understanding, reconcile local knowledge with Western science, and educate
themselves. By fulfilling these demands, indigenous peoples are able to persist as
environmental actors. The indigenous peoples role as stakeholders inextricably
linked with the local environment requires them to bear the risks of environmental change. In addition to always having been able to adapt to their changing environments in the past, there still exists the expectation that indigenous
peoples will adapt, persist, and change in the future. This means that indigenous
peoples are constantly participating and constantly communicating what is taking
place locally. The role of being indigenous, and having a close relationship with
nature, relies on the often essentialized features of indigenousness. Hence, the
argument for agency through this close relationship with nature requires indigenousness and sustaining what it is (or how it is perceived). Indigenous peoples
as environmental agents and threatened peoples are made responsible to act for
the survival and well-being of their communities.
Our discussion of indigenous peoples environmental agency can be critically
interpreted as having relevance beyond the specific cases studied here. As Sissons
(2005:24) notes, the analysis of agency is important, but when it is confined only
to nature, it draws attention away from indigenousness as a form of global politics that poses significant and specific challenges to states. This means a shift to
more generalized projects of eco-ethnicity and cultural survival, which, as
Sissons asserts, leads to a consideration of indigenousness not in relation to colonization but instead in terms of relative closeness to nature. This discourse of
eco-indigenism categorizes and limits indigenousness and indigenous politics
to primitivist areas of nature and culture, as opposed to Western rationality,
which is destructive of nature (Sissons 2005:2324; see also Nadasdy 2005 on
indigenous stereotypes and Western environmentalism).
A similar construction of distinctions between indigenous peoples and other
actors is present in debates on international environmental politics in the Arctic
Council and the PF. The natives and settlers of environmental politics are
created in the midst of the dichotomies of traditional ecological knowledge
Western science, bearers of environmental riskspolluters, and peoples
living on the landindustrialized world. In this discourse, which Sissons
(2005:39) calls eco-indigenism, distinctions between native and settler are
continuously reproduced, although always in new guises. These distinctions,
based on oppressive authenticity, produce an expectation and responsibility
that indigenous peoples are to look, sound, and behave indigenous.
These distinctions produce indigenous peoples and their relationship with
nature as exceptional. This exceptionality (see also Brigg 2007) is inscribed in all
the three themes discussed in the present study. The environmental political
agency of indigenous peoples is inextricably and vitally bound to nature, which
is intimately experienced and lived. In deconstructing environmental politics
and the roles of indigenous peoples in it, the governmentality framework that
we have applied is a fruitful tool. However, we recognize that it does not capture
the particularity of the governmentality that takes place through the exceptionality; it does not explain why indigenousness becomes reduced to eco-indigenism.
Since indigenous peoples and indigenousness are tied to nature and hence to
exceptionality, they become subject to the normalizing biological and political
technologies of (bio)power. Therefore, we suggest that a biopolitical approach
(for example, Ojakangas 2005; Foucault 2007) to governmentality could help to
interpret the reduction in indigenousness to eco-indigenism further. By fostering
indigenous life through what indigenousness is perceived to be, a vital politics
(Lemke 2011) makes the essentialized features of indigenous peoples objects of

Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

289

a political strategy. This critical approach of biopolitics is lacking in the literature on indigenous peoples and international politics (for national studies, see
Brigg 2007; Cupples 2011; Morgensen 2011 on settler colonialism).
What originally caught our attention in the two separate bodies of research
material was the recurrent use of languagecaptured in the three themes investigated herethat self-evidently and unquestionably validated, justified, and
enabled indigenous peoples agency. In this article, we have given an account of
the ways in which these themes are implicated in larger rationalities of governance that not only enable but also constrain. We recognize that our viewpoint
here can be criticized for being one of the new guises (of biopower) in that it
focuses on the environmental agency of indigenous peoples. However, we argue
that the research on international politics is in need of critical analyses that
examine indigenous peoples, the environment, politics, and participation on the
international level. The exceptionality of indigenous peoples environmental
agency is one question in need of deconstruction.
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Statements in the 7th Session of the UN Permanent Forum, 2008


Bastidas, Edith. Presenting the Declaration of the Preparatory Meeting for the
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